Coker Arrives in World Without Handshake Deals

“What do you think of him?” Scott Coker asks, consistent in his eye contact.

He was promoting fights before The Karate Kid made it cool. Why does the founder and CEO of Strikeforce care what I think? He’s forgotten more about martial arts than I know. And it’s my job to know about mixed martial arts. So I mull it over and offer my opinion on Kevin Randleman.

He’s a freak athlete — a scary fighter. He’s also inconsistent. He’s either dominant or he fades, and he’s as prone to injury as he is controversy. To answer the real question, though, I’d love to see him fight in Strikeforce.

Coker nods. I realize he operates his business on the casual-conversation level. Just a few weeks later, rumors ran all over the Internet that “The Monster” had signed with Strikeforce. It was like Coker, who insists he makes fights by talking with friends, was winking at me. Reports turned out to be false — they are only negotiating — and he and I aren’t friends, but his get-things-done approach has earned Coker and Strikeforce fans.

Fight interviews tend to be cut and dry, so when I interviewed Ken Hershman, the senior VP and general manager of sports and event programming for Showtime, I was surprised he held me up on the phone to praise Coker’s personality above all else.

UFC President Dana White is MMA’s perpetual expletive. Thus, Coker’s mellow approach has won him the role of White’s foil. Showtime and CBS-TV broadcasting deals, coupled with Strikeforce’s financially sound approach to fighting, also differentiate it from the now defunct WFA, IFL, and EliteXC, which sold its remaining assets to Strikeforce.

“I don’t think respect was a two-way street,” Coker reveals about collaborating with EliteXC, a settlement reached due to Frank Shamrock’s dual affiliation. They were a stark contrast: Coker doesn’t have 20 people for one task; he has one person for 20 tasks while EliteXC had entourages. Coker won’t go into details about the lack of respect — confrontation is not his style.

It’s exactly why he hasn’t targeted the UFC like the other fledgling-turned-failed organizations. The UFC has packaged a counterprogram (at least that’s how it’s perceived) to Strikeforce’s first Showtime foray on April 11. It may signal the UFC senses a rival. However, it won’t prompt Coker to start a war of words with White. And a rival is a world apart from an enemy.

Whether he holds friend or foe status related to the UFC, Coker has tunnel vision. He responds to the idea of a Strikeforce reality show with an answer typical of his disposition:

“That’s a whole another business on its own,” he says, “but my main worry right now is April 11.”

That is to say there is business for now and business for later. Now may not be more important than later, but it’s what needs to be taken care of immediately. Maybe that’s why an expected confrontation with the UFC hasn’t arrived since Strikeforce asserted itself in MMA. Unless the UFC is working with Strikeforce, they are not even later—they are parallel.

But Coker comes to the one definitive statement about clashing with the UFC: Cung Le versus Anderson Silva.

“That would be a much better fight than everyone thinks,” Coker says, lamenting that the UFC doesn’t have a co-promotion model.

He picks his Middleweight champion to win. Le, he explains, has better wrestling and striking. He’s deceivingly good and would win the bout against the UFC Middleweight king standing. It’s a fan’s assessment, it seems, yet there’s no fan-boy fluctuation in his voice, no diatribe against Silva. That is simply how Coker sees it.

He should know, too, because he claims to be the UFC’s biggest fan. Like most of Coker’s stories, they start far away from his home base of San Jose, Calif. He was in Florida for Super Bowl XLIII. Arriving the day Georges St. Pierre took center cage against B.J. Penn for a second time, his wife hurried him, interrupting their dinner so they could watch the fights. His love for the sport has infected his household. They watch it all and TiVo it if they can’t.

He even watches White’s video blogs.

Again, distinctions between Coker and White emerge. He’s older than White, and “3 or 4 months ago I didn’t even know what a video blog was.” The Korean native continues on with a surprised tone when I ask if his newfound visibility in MMA will bring about Scott Coker video blogs.

“When I figure out how to work the computer right, I’ll let you know,” he says, laughing.

In keeping up with the UFC product, Coker understands that “their league can only handle so many fighters.” It’s a room-for-everybody attitude — one rare for business and unique in a sport where one must emerge victorious.

Trying to decode Coker’s Phil Jackson-like demeanor is difficult but ultimately unnecessary. Despite more than 2 decades of promoting combat sports, he’s quick to admit he’s still learning.

“I’ll tell you this. Before I got into MMA, all my deals were handshake deals,” Coker says.

One particular argument with a manager — again, he won’t go into specifics — paints Coker with a disappointed look. Now, every agreement “definitely” needs a piece of paper attached. This results from MMA’s infantile or rock-star nature.

“Kickboxing was one culture,” he says. “MMA is three or four.”

Some elements of fighting never change no matter what culture is involved. But in telling a story about Bob Sapp, who he knew from kickboxing and MMA, it’s apparent Coker wishes handshake deals were still valid. It’s like he’s looking for his version of it.

Coker relays Sapp was poor and hungry when he tore his way up to the NFL. Professional wrestling, K-1, and MMA fame came with money stacks that weighed more than the 350-pounder. Sapp became such a star in Japan that “The Beast” released his own pop album. The story had many settings — from a limousine in Washington to packed Japanese street markets — and somewhere along the line Sapp disclosed a hard truth to Coker.

“When I was poor and people hit me, it didn’t hurt,” Sapp said. “Now that I’m rich, everything hurts.”

While Coker is interested in Tito Ortiz fighting in Strikeforce, he’s worried that may be the case for the former UFC Light-Heavyweight champion. Coker finishes analyzing Ortiz, and a brief lull leaves him looking at me again, as if to ask, “What do you think of him?”

*Strikeforce debuts on Showtime this Saturday, April 11. A full article on Scott Coker and Strikeforce can be found in the April 2009 issue of FIGHT!

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